After a year of living in a homeless encampment near Vancouver known as the Surrey Strip – a place he likens to both hell and a zoo, where he was robbed blind, surrounded by drug use and chaos and soaked to the bone during months of relentless rain – Dennis Hobbs is ready to move.
The former roofer is among 160 people selected to receive temporary housing in Surrey under a joint initiative by the city and the British Columbia government. Some, such as Mr. Hobbs, will go to portable-style supportive housing units, and others to local shelters.
On Tuesday, Mr. Hobbs was among about 200 people on the Strip – an industrial stretch of 135A Street that became a homeless encampment – preparing to move. Police officers blocked both ends of the street and people in reflective vests handed out blue bins for people to pack their belongings in.
“I’m looking forward to it, safer and more stable housing,” Mr. Hobbs said. A small Canada flag pin was pushed through his left ear lobe and his right arm displayed a “Proud Canadian” tattoo.
“It will improve a lot of people’s lives once they get that housing, because then they can go to work. Good things will happen.”
But not everyone is as enthused. The Surrey Strip has become emblematic of the city’s clashes with its most impoverished, and some view the housing initiative as another effort to clean up the Strip rather than care for its vulnerable street population.
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, for example, opposed opening a supervised consumption site until overdose deaths skyrocketed, triggering a province-wide response complete with dozens of overdose-prevention sites.
When plans for a supervised consumption site on the Surrey Strip materialized in late 2016, the city announced it would be complemented with a satellite office staffed by 16 law enforcement officers, which critics said would deter people from using it.
The supportive housing units are stacked portables divided into small rooms. The rooms include private bathrooms, and residents will have access to meal programs, laundry, counselling and medical services.
Johnathon Forster, agitated as he popped in and out of his tent on Tuesday, said the housing initiative meant a loss of autonomy and said he and his partner would rather stay on the street.
“I’ve slept in the same bed with my girlfriend for two years and now we’re going to be in separate shelters,” he said. “They allow us two little bins for our possessions, so not only are they taking away our freedom, but I’ve got to [get] rid of my stuff.”
Trish Hooper, who has lived on the Strip for about a year and a half, was given notice that she will be placed in a shelter. She wondered about the selection process for the temporary modular housing.
“I’m 51 now, so I’m not exactly young,” she said. “It’s pretty disappointing and it makes you a little jealous.”
B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in a statement that service providers that have built relationships with residents of the Strip over the past year helped determine their needs.
“Based on this thoughtful and thorough assessment, some people will be offered temporary accommodation and some shelter beds, as shelters are an important part of providing access to support services and a safe, warm and dry place to sleep,” the statement said.
The temporary housing will be replaced with 250 units of permanent modular housing beginning in 2019. The locations have yet to be determined.
“Everyone who is living in the temporary accommodation will have a plan developed for their next stage of housing,” the statement read.